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I have a good memory. I can remember what I’ve worn on my birthday for the past 25 years and, if you’ve half an hour to spare, I could talk you through the outfits as others recite the kings and queens of England. I still recall the lines from all the plays I was in — always the headmistress or the grandma or the creepy uncle. How could anyone forget standing in a floor-length velvet skirt and pintucked white shirt singing to the most popular girl in the class, “Lord Nelson never turned his eye on conduct slightly shady”? They really broke the mould when they wrote “School and Crossbones”.
I bumped into a pal recently, hadn’t seen her for 30 years, and I said the usual “Hello” and “How’ve you been”, asked what she had been doing these past three decades, and then, just to be flash, I could not help saying, “And are your parents still on 458 6093?”
“No,” she said, “they moved to Israel.”
A fashion model I like once said that beauty was “unearned respect”. She said people admired her as she went about daily life, no thanks to anything she’d actually done. Memory can take on this aspect also, for if you remember many things about people, it will read as caring, and while I don’t say it isn’t those things, it is also a sort of facility, like running very fast or having 20/20 vision. You can’t help doing it. It just sort of happens.
Sometimes, of course, you must not flaunt it. You may feel pleased with yourself that it’s lodged in your head that your editor at your publisher happens to be allergic to shellfish, but mention this fact more than once every seven years and it can start to look like an obsession of yours. Similarly, although it is true that your friend’s ex-boyfriend’s little sister suffers from cluster headaches, you had better not remind your friend of this ever again. They broke up five years ago. It is time for you to move on.
I had memory in mind at the theatre last night. It was Faith Healer by Brian Friel at the Donmar and I was so impressed by the writing that instead of making me want to act, by which I mean climb up on the stage and shove one of the actors into the laps of the front row, it made me want to take the play home. I wished I had a pencil and notepaper and could have written down the best lines. Instead I started to memorise them. Very early on, the main character Frank says, “I’m not respectful, but I don’t mock.”
I recited that under my breath. I imagined it being said in the House of Commons by the leader of the opposition. I imagined it from the mouth of James Mason, who first played the part on Broadway.
Soon after, the same character says that the wounded and injured people who came to experience his healing in dark halls across Britain came “not in hope but for the elimination of hope”. I murmured the line to myself and then, “They came to seal their anguish.” Then I went back to “I’m not respectful but I don’t mock” and added on the new lines, all while trying to take in what was happening on the stage. I added, “There was no sense of homecoming. I tried to simulate it but nothing stirred.”
When Frank left the stage, his long-suffering girlfriend Grace appeared, framed by an ironing board and a one-bar electric fire, and despair. She was dressed in a brownish patterned dress that was 50 per cent highly strung convalescent-wear and 50 per cent this-season Prada. She had recently suffered some kind of mental and emotional collapse and was trying to recover through willpower. I added some of her lines. “You’ve really got to be stern with yourself,” her doctor had said to her, about bettering her mental state. Is that what I should be doing? She described her progress as “like a patient going back to solids”. She then spoke of a letter she wrote to Frank the one time she tried to leave him: “Do not follow me, I love you deeply, Grace.”
I now had seven or eight lines under my hat, a neat little poem through which the action on the stage was condensed. I carried on after the interval.
At the curtain call, my hands sore with clapping, I was reciting bits of the play like a mad thing. I was exhausted. It was a little like waking from a hectic dream where you’ve been slaying dragons all night. Valour is tiring.
Had I squandered the play by trying to possess it? As I passed out of the theatre I saw that the play text was for sale. Oh!
I stopped and bought one and tried to be calm and to forget.